Maya activist and environmentalist Greg Ch’oc had the support of the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage and the Association of Protected Areas Management Organizations (APAMO) at a press conference held in Belize City Tuesday morning, at which he made an ardent appeal to Prime Minister Dean Barrow to reason with them to revisit Government’s policy of permitting petroleum exploration across the entire length and breadth of Belize, including protected areas, which comprise 26% of national territory.
The issue has come to the fore after the Prime Minister said in recent media interviews that drilling could proceed in Toledo on the concession area for which US Capital Energy, a US-based company with operations in both Belize and neighboring Guatemala, has a contract.
However, Ch’oc argues that whereas the government has a contract with the oil companies, it also has a contract with the people of Belize—one that is just as valid and binding.
“So, Mister Prime Minister, you have said that you won’t break legitimate contracts. Is it, then, that our laws which bind and commit us as a people to protect our natural wonders not worth the paper [they are] written on? Furthermore, [are] the international conventions that Belize has signed on also rendered meaningless in this country? Are you saying that the only legitimate contracts recognized by the government are those signed to accommodate special interest groups at a specific time?” he questioned.
Ch’oc points out that through the laws of the land, the government has limited access of people living in Toledo to protected areas, such as the Sarstoon Temash National Park, which he helps to manage.
“Through the instrument of law, these communities that live around protected areas have been denied their traditional resources for their livelihood by denying them access to these protected areas. Therefore, government has a moral and legal obligation to respect these protected area laws and honor the sacrifice our communities keep making,” he commented.
Although PM Barrow has so far not responded to Ch’oc’s letter expressing concern over his recent statement in the media about drilling in the South, Ch’oc is extending an appeal to the Prime Minister to revisit his position. He said that he is still hoping for a response from Barrow.
“I hope you will choose to stand with us and recognize our contract and reason with us,” Ch’oc said, directing his public comments to the Prime Minister. “We are all aware of the state of our economy. It requires bold and swift action. The actions we take must not only be for the purpose of creating jobs, but must lay the foundation for dignity, equality and opportunity for all our people. Rebuilding our economy requires innovation and creativity—certainly not by destroying its foundation.”
According to Yvette Alonzo, APAMO executive director, petroleum exploitation and exploration entail the construction of roads and infrastructure, deforestation and biodiversity loss, contamination of water and soil, among other impacts.
“By virtue of their protected status, these protected areas should remain free from destructive human intervention,” said Alonzo. “We cannot get away from the fact that oil exploration and exploitation often requires lots of construction which can destroy natural environments.”
She added that, “APAMO strongly believes that as a country, we need to have areas that are off-limits to oil exploration and production—and protected areas should be one of such areas...”
She expressed the view that petroleum exploration is not the economic solution for Belize. It has been proven worldwide that foreign-owned oil companies garner the bulk of revenues, while locals and their governments get a small percentage, she said, adding that “oil will not last forever.”
As an umbrella organization which represents SATIIM and other non-governmental organizations that partner with the government to manage protected areas across Belize, APAMO issued a call on the government “to do the right thing”—that is, to ban petroleum exploration in protected areas, onshore or offshore, and world heritage sites, such as the barrier reef that spans offshore Belize.
“APAMO is seriously concerned about the negative impacts [that] oil exploration and exploitation inside our protected areas would have on its rich biodiversity and most importantly on its critical ecosystems services, which would, in turn, affect the people of Belize,” she stated.
“The clear position of APAMO is that these activities are incompatible with the objectives of our protected areas legislation,” she added. “Furthermore, the government has failed to develop a policydealing with protected areas...in order to protect these precious resources.”
Alonzo also pointed out that the government does not have the proper legal framework or the human and technological capacity needed to meet the demands that would be created by the impending petroleum exploration projects.
Geovanni Brackett, speaking for the Coalition, said: “We are here to take a proactive measure. Maybe it should have been done a decade ago; maybe it should have been done years ago—but it’s happening now. And the government today has the opportunity to adhere, to show its people that it is willing to listen, to show its people that it will not carry on with its status quo and continue to have the same oppressive system....”
The risk of serious accidents—including mass casualties—is real, Brackett also stated, citing a series of international incidents. The Coalition also presented a video exposing the lingering effects of oil exploration and abandoned well pits left by Texaco on indigenous tribes in Ecuador.
“The threats are real, and don’t let the oil companies fool you. Damages, deaths, explosions, accidents can occur at all levels of operation—whether exploration, production, transportation,” said Brackett.
Close to home was the accidental death, which our newspaper had reported on last year, of a worker, Allen Bonnell, who was killed when an oil rig capsized as it was being towed to Big Creek. That oil rig, said Brackett, is owned by Island Oil but was built at Shipyard in Belize.
The Niger Delta petroleum operations are infamous for the negative repercussions they have had on the lives of locals, and, according to Brackett, there was no comprehensive strategic plan in place there. Companies moved into sensitive habitats, including areas vital to fish breeding. That, he said, sounds similar to how things are being approached in Belize right now. He said that Belize has no framework to protect people and national resources.
“We are being led by a government straight on to a financial hell, and if we as a people will not stand up, if we as a people do not get informed and start a move to action, the government will continue with its intention to drill,” Brackett commented. “And it’s not that we are scared of technology; it’s not that we are scared of development—it’s because we are scared of the very same oppressive system that has continued to drag us down this road.
“It is because we know how the financial minds of most of these companies have acted in the past and how they continue to act that makes us take a stand, and we are calling on our government to protect our people first and foremost.”
Rather than letting the oil companies dictate the policies of the day, it is the people that should dictate how they want their government to run, he said.
“This government, like Pontius Pilate, cannot wash its hands and pretend as if though it is clean, when it has been guilty of defending the status quo. Our entire country continues to be on sale to the oil companies—every single inch!” Brackett commented.
“There are so many areas of Belize that have not been explored outside of protected areas, and I can’t believe...we have blocked out our people for years from out of our protected areas, and yet now we open fully to the oil companies. It doesn’t make sense to me!” he remarked.
Ch’oc said that SATIIM has not ruled out the option of taking the government to court over the matter. In 2006, it won a partial victory when it got the court to stall seismic testing in Toledo until an Environmental Impact Assessment could be completed. Government is of the view that the EIA also covers exploration drilling in the same area.
Deon “Ras Pitta” Pitter, who attended the press conference, presented a copy of the 2008 general election manifesto of the ruling United Democratic Party, and read from the section that deals with oil and energy—promises which he deems to be a valid contract with the voters who elected them to power.
In that document, the ruling party spoke of ensuring proper management of the industry that will increase standards of living and help realize citizens’ dreams of a prosperous future.
“I don’t want to hear anything about any offshore drilling. Let us solve this situation here first before we even go there. This is what I voted for the government for,” said Ras Pitta.
The manifesto promised that the UDP will, among other things, revisit existing agreements to guarantee equitable return to all Belizeans; offer shares in a national oil company so the masses of people can have a prosperous stake in the petroleum wealth; increase the number of scholarships in relevant fields; and establish an office of energy responsible for regulating the petroleum industry.
In that manifesto, the UDP also said there would be a review of the petroleum contracts that had been signed, in an effort to improve the benefits to the Belizean people.
Dean Barrow and the UDP contracted this with the people, he added. “If Barrow and the government stand up for the things promised, I will stand with them too,” he said.
Ch’oc said that rather than revisiting the contracts as the UDP had promised in its manifesto, the Barrow administration back in 2008 simply extended the expired contract of US Capital Energy.
Ch’oc said that this is a matter that all Belizeans should care about—not only the people of Toledo: “Today, it might be the Sarstoon Temash National Park; tomorrow, it might be right in front of Belize City.” he said.